Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Hidden History

Another online article, this time a blog post from 28 October 2013 written by Sean McElgunn reveals more hidden and oral history concerning events in the Carmelite community of New York in 1919 and the early 1920s. His article also fills in gaps around Carmelite history. Father Flanagan is mentioned only briefly by name though I believe there could be other inferences to his involvement in events within this fascinating piece called Hidden History: 

Stained glass window at St Albert’s church,
Middletown depicting Our Lady of the Scapular

'    Like an iceberg, what is hidden is often far more important than what is visible. What I learned at school of the history of the Irish struggle during the period in question, was as nothing compared to the ‘uisge faoi thalamh’, the water under the ground. Here’s how I learned more.

In the early 1980s, I got to know an old retired Parish Priest near West Point in up-state New York, a Fr. John Smith. He himself was from County Cavan and some of his relatives came from Fermanagh. A short time after Fr. John died, his housekeeper phoned me about his collection of books; they were going to be dumped; did I want any of them? I drove up there in an old U.S. WWII army jeep and took my pick. I have them still. But it was the old man’s handwritten accounts of his career that started a wild-goose chase. That was how I came to make many interesting discoveries, about the inner workings, as it were, of the Irish freedom movement.

To start with, the Carmelites, whose church we had starting attending, had come originally from Whitefriars Street  in Dublin. Four Carmelite priests went out to New York from Dublin, in 1889, at the request of the New York Archbishop, Cardinal Farley, who was trying to set up new parishes to cater for the huge numbers of Irish and other Catholic immigrants. They opened a parish on 28th Street in Manhattan, and built a residence and church. From there they expanded outwards to Tarrytown, Middletown, Otisville, etc.

St Albert’s, Middletown, Orange County
Around 1917 they opened a minor seminary for new recruits in Middletown in Orange County, St. Albert’s, where we attended Sunday Mass in the 1980′s. In recent times it had become the residence for the retired priests. We would sometimes join the aged community, many born in Ireland, for brunch afterwards. I got to know several of them well and heard stories from them about the old days. I also was given access to their library and archives. In general, the retired priests varied widely in their political views on the old days, some pro, some contra, as in any group. Some had no opinion at all. Some were fanatical on the Dev V Collins question. Some things never change. But it was all idle talk; in reality it was only the political stance of the Superiors that counted. In those days, the superior was total boss; all others obeyed. It should also be noted that these order priests were not directly subject to the bishops as secular clergy were.

The man who stands out here was a Fr. Peter Elias McGennis from Tandragee. He was in charge during all the period in question. He most certainly was a commanding figure. He had the power and he used it. Born in 1868, he had already spent many hectic years on mission work in Australia. His word was law throughout this whole period and far beyond.

He was the driving force that made the Irish Carmelite order in Ireland and New York State the secret, underground movement that underpinned the political turmoil of that entire period. He was fiercely anti-British/pro-German during WWI, a dyed-in-the-wool Dev-man, anti-British, anti-treaty. He was a dynamic Superior who rose to become Superior General of the worldwide Order from 1919 till 1931. His word was law; what he wanted, he got. Those who disagreed, and they were many, had to keep quiet, or else? The crucial involvement of the Irish Carmelites in the Irish-British struggle was largely his doing, ably abetted by those who agreed with his political stance. This invisible network underpins everything concerning Ireland, that happened in western Europe during those fateful years. I have this, and much more, from the old priests who lived through those turbulent times, from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

The Carmelite historian, Fr. Isaacsson, has researched and written a series of books on this material. But the general Irish public seem still to be unaware of these basic facts. We Irish of all persuasions and none, have still only a superficial grasp of the real history of those eventful years. It seems to me, in striving for lasting peace in Ireland, that the telling of the whole truth is imperative. Some of the other Irish-born Carmelite priests in positions of authority in New York, who staunchly supported the Magennis position, may have had Fermanagh connections. I honestly do not know, but the names of some make it likely, Denis O’Connor, Robert Metcalf, Donal O’Callaghan, Hugh Devlin, Gerard O’Farrell, Laurence Flanagan, Patrick McCartan, Norman Thomas. The leaders of the core group who, in practice, dominated the Irish Carmelite Order during that period, had been classmates in Blackrock College, along with De Valera and Sean T. O’Kelly.
Stained glass window from St Albert’s, 
Middletown depicting Christ

The expanding Carmelite parishes in the New York State south-eastern counties, Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Ulster, together with 28th Street, Manhattan, provided a safe communications network and safe houses for those of that one hard-line political persuasion. The old priests told me also that people were smuggled in and out of Ireland in various guises such as coal-shovelers on ships. They told of arms concealed and smuggled, even during the Great War, when the Atlantic was a death-trap. For example, Liam Mellows came and went as a stevedore.

Fr. Sean Reid from Kilkenny was one of the younger priests there. He died in 2003, aged 93. I spent many happy hours in his private quarters listening to his stories, my eyes straying at times to the sacred ash stick on his book-shelf. He was crazy about hurling; he prized the hurley of the great Terry Leahy like a relic. Every chance he got, he was in Croke Park on All-Ireland day, if Kilkenny was in it. His family was close to Dev’s in friendship and in politics; in fact, he told me proudly, he himself had baptised one of the De Valera children.

Loading mailbags and luggage
onto ships at Queenstown (Cobh)
He told me a story about a Carmelite priest, I forget his name, who was one time travelling home to Ireland, by ship of course. Priests always travelled light. Some days before his departure from New York, as he was walking along the street, a man caught up with him and whispered as he passed, ‘Take good care of that luggage of yours’, and walked rapidly away. Naturally, the priest was puzzled, most of his luggage was the clothes on his back; but said nothing and forgot all about it. It turned out that the first U.S. Ambassador to the Irish Free State was on the same sailing and he and the Carmelite priest were invited to dine at the Captain’s Table and they became good friends. When it came time to disembark at Cobh, they were walking together along the deck toward the gang-plank, when a big black sailor strode alongside, carrying a hefty bag on his shoulder. It was obviously heavy. As he changed it to the other shoulder the handle broke. The sailor hefted it up again, saying, ‘You must have rocks in here, Padre’. Luckily someone was speaking to the ambassador just then. The priest hastily shook hands with him and followed the sailor. That loaded powder-keg sat in the priest’s brother’s basement in Cork for a week, then mysteriously disappeared. The priest got little sleep that week; his brother had recently secured a high position in the new Free State government.

I remember being intrigued to discover a stained-glass window in the sacristy of St. Albert’s in Middletown, of a group of Irish clergy and politicians. There is no mistaking the tall, imposing figure on the right, Mr. Eamonn De Valera and Liam Mellows opposite. I often stuck my head in there when passing for another glimpse of the Long Fella.

When Dev escaped from prison in England in 1919, despite being on the run he was able to sail steerage to New York, hidden in the lamp-lighter’s quarters, he went straight to the Carmelite house on 28th Street. Before appearing in public, he visited his half-brother, a Redemptorist priest. Whenever he did appear publicly, he was in large crowds, but went back to the 28th Street each night. When word came over the grapevine, from the New York police no less, that the Federal authorities were on the way, Dev was spirited away to St. Albert’s in Middletown. I was shown the room where he slept.

Liam Mellows, among many others like Sean T. O’Kelly, travelled to the States as sailors and holed up in St. Albert’s. Mellows was in the Easter Rising; he settled in St. Albert’s for long stretches; taught Irish music and dancing to the children, besides working as the gardener. His violin was still there in our time. Old Fr. Daly once played it at a get-together we attended. The Daly brothers’ mother came from Rosslea. Mel died in 1988.

There were stories of how arms were secretly stashed underneath the altar in the church on 28th Street and spirited away just as mysteriously. Obviously, there was no mystery for some; the higher-ups connived at such shenanigans and the rest sang dumb.

A typed copy of a letter from Pearse to John Devoy in 1915, concerning a shipment to Ireland, survives in the Carmelite archives. I read that copy myself and have no reason to doubt that Pearse wrote it, knowing something of his style and phraseology in English and Irish. Interestingly, the transcriber made a hash of several Irish phrases in the letter. I have never seen any reference to this letter anywhere.

I verified what I have written above, and much more about those days, with my Parish Priest in Goshen, New York, Fr. Tom McCaffrey, who grew up in Derrylin, Co. Fermanagh. He was born in Glasgow but went to live with his mother’s relatives when she died.

Lastly, I consider it of paramount importance that all efforts toward permanent peace in Ireland are based on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. These jottings are a few samples from among many, of the hidden history of the period in question. Here’s hoping they will be read in the same spirit of understanding and reconciliation. We learn about the past, not to judge it now, but to try to do better in the future.

Sean McElgunn

Mary Spring-Rice with Molly Childers, smuggling
900 German Mauser M1871 11 mm calibre single
shot rifles and 29,000 rounds of
blackpowder cartridges on board the Asgard.

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